So there I was at the tail end of each of last night's Game 7's, licking my chops at the possibility of Game 7 overtime -- when two even greater versions of hockey at its best revealed themselves.
In one corner, you had the yin of great offensive hockey: Sublime individual effort and elite skill, which sometimes overcomes all systems, all discipline, all coaching, all structure. Sergei Fedorov -- the old Russian who dazzled (and dove) his way through the '90s and awoke again in D.C. after largely sleep-walking through Anaheim and Columbus -- pulled an old trick out of his bag, like some unreal legend re-emerging from the dust in an Old Western.
Fedorov's rush, pull-up and blistering wrist shot was not the puck-hogging, me-first kind of individual effort that might win the odd regular season game. It was the kind of seemingly harmless 2-on-3 rush, last-resort option that often wins tied-late playoff games. The kind of individual display that hides itself until the right moment. The kind you can't much guard against -- John Tortorella rightly pointed out that Federov's one-on-one moves still demand respect -- but which you simply hope a star doesn't pull out of his quiver when it's your team's season on the line.
The perfect move, the perfect shot, sent incredibly tight, short-side and high over Henrik Lundqvist's ever-vulnerable yet hard-to-pick shoulder. Game, series, D.C.
Meanwhile, within the half hour, Eric Staal was stunning the Devils with a remarkably similar rush up the right side. Yet 50 seconds before Staal's devastating winner -- and 80 seconds before the apparent end of their season -- the Hurricanes improbably tied it up late with the yang of great offensive hockey: Absolute, relentless, dedicated teamwork.
The seemingly minutes-long pressure the Canes put on to keep the puck in the Devils' zone just before the tying goal was the result of smart (if desperate) teamwork. Trust in each other to get to the right spots and make the right play. How many times have you watched your team, down late, sabotage its own comeback efforts by playing desperate individual hockey? Random over-forechecks without support, poor solo rushes with no rebounds, and impatient choices with the puck that short-circuit the breakout and burn your last remaining seconds?
The Hurricanes did none of that on this shift, playing a disciplined game of forechecking support wherever the puck went in the Devils' zone. The highlight, of course, was Tim Gleason's diving (yet still saucered!) pass to both keep the puck in the zone and get it over to Joni Pitkanen. But Pitkanen was likewise brilliant by not rushing the puck to the net and instead spotting the backside, where Jussi Jokinen stood waiting, open blade ready to fire.
As if to prove that hockey is the greatest "game of inches" of them all, Jokinen's one-timer might yet have been stopped by Martin Brodeur -- had Jokinen only lifted it as Brodeur expected and as Jokinen likely intended. But instead it went far side and low, through Brodeur's legs, where he still almost got a corrective glove back down to block it.
Needless to say, each of these moments were amplified by the fact seasons were alternately crushed and continued because of them. But something about the way they occurred struck me beyond the basic drama of "sudden death" (or in this case, near-sudden death).
Other than traditionally cheering the Rangers' demise, I had no rooting interests last night beyond hoping for two Game 7 overtimes. In the end I received neither, yet ended up with a slice of hockey just as sweet.